Photo Essay : Egypt

I visited Egypt in early 2009. It was a place I had been anxious to visit during my previous two years of traveling. They pyramids and the other Egyptian ruins are some of the most ancient remnants of human civilization. Egypt didn’t disappoint. Despite a rather negative experience at the pyramids, my experience in Egypt overall was a positive one. I went SCUBA diving in Alexandria to see the ruins of the ancient lighthouse, traveled all the way to Abu Simbel, sailed down the Nile from Aswan to Luxur, crossed the Sinai Peninsula and visited the world’s oldest monastery: St. Catherine’s.

I know that the recent turmoil in Egypt has soured many people on visiting, but I would return again in a heartbeat.
Continue reading “Photo Essay : Egypt”

A Traveler’s View of Events in Egypt

Cairo and PyramidsAs I have mentioned many times, and will probably mention many times more, travel makes you perceive a place differently after you’ve been there. (Please read my 2009 essay on Travel and Tragedy and the corresponding quote from Adam Smith.)

Last week there were riots and political protests in Tunisia and I watched the events as a detached observer. I’ve never been to Tunisia and I don’t know any Tunisians.

Then the riots spread to Egypt and my attitude changed. Continue reading “A Traveler’s View of Events in Egypt”

How to Survive a Visit to the Pyramids of Egypt

I am not going to write about the history, the mystery or the grandeur of the pyramids. For over 4,000 years the pyramids have been one of the best-known structures on Earth. We have probably all seen TV shows, read books, or did a fourth-grade report on them so there is nothing I can really add that you can’t get somewhere else.

What I am going to talk about is the physical act of visiting the pyramids. I confess right up front that my experience to the pyramids might not be representative of the experience others have had. I went on a day there were few tourists and by myself. Had I been with a group or on a day with more people, then it might have been a totally different experience. It is one of the few attractions I’ve visited where I can say it is better to go when it is crowded. This is written from my first-hand experience and talking to dozens of other tourists in Egypt who had experiences similar to mine.

From a straight tourist visitation perspective, my trip to the pyramids was the worst I’ve had. The management of the Giza Pyramids site is horrible and little to no investment has been put into even basic things like garbage cans or signs. Other locations in Egypt under the oversight of The Supreme Council of Antiquities are not in this poor of shape or run this poorly. Abu Simbel was was a great example of how an attraction like this should be administered. In fact, every other temple I went to in Egypt wasn’t really that bad. $1,000 investment (which is probably less than one day of admissions to the pyramids) could pay for garbage bins and a crew of people to walk around the ground to pick up litter.

trip to egypt pyramids
This is the cop who shook me down for 20 Egyptian Pounds

The nightmare of visiting the pyramids began with the taxi ride. EVERY taxi in Egypt is going to try and put the screws to you on the amount they charge to take you there. The pyramids are tourist attraction #1 and they know it. The advantage to being on a group tour is that you never have to deal with taxis. If you do take a taxi, make sure to set the price before you go. The cab driver will try to just get you to get in the car without setting a price. There are tons of taxis and they all want your money. Pass and take another if they wont commit to a price. You shouldn’t pay more than 20-30LE (Egyptian Pounds) for a ride. Also, make sure they take you directly to the entrance gate, with no stops in between. There is a Giza stop in the Cairo subway system. It doesn’t go directly to the pyramids, but there is a mini bus you can get on at the station that will take you there. It is a much cheaper option (about 1LE for the subway fare) and you don’t have to worry about everything I listed above. The subway is what I should have done.

You will notice as you approach the pyramids that it is not like what you have seen in pictures all your life. While one side of the pyramids are up against the desert, the other side is right up against a residential neighborhood. In fact right across the street from the main gate to the pyramids is a Pizza Hut. That that is literally what the Sphinx is looking at.

When the taxi was still a kilometer away from the entrance, I had the first run in with the most aggressive and annoying touts I’ve seen at any tourist location in the world: the camel riders. There is a huge business built around giving tourists rides on camels, and they are very aggressive about getting business. When my taxi was still driving down the street, when we had to slow at a speed bump, one of the camel guys jumped into the taxi to try and tried to sell me on a camel.

Trip to egyptian pyramids
Litter at the base of the pyramids

The fact that this guy was willing to jump into a moving vehicle should give you an idea of just how aggressive they are. The taxi driver will get a cut of whatever the camel rider gets, so they have no incentive to protect you from them. They will do anything and everything up to, but not quite, theft. They will lie to you, they will scam you, they will try to con you. You need to know that before you get there because in typical con man fashion, they have developed a routine to try to be friendly with the tourists.

The first question they will always ask you is where you are from. This is not because they are interested in learning about your culture. They encounter thousands of tourists every month. They’ve seen it all before. They ask the question so they can a) set a price for how much to charge you, and b) use it as a hook to start a conversation to make you think they are your friend. If you say you are American, they will say “Obama!”. If you say you are Canadian, they will say “Canada Dry!”. No matter where you say you are from, they will say “Good people from xxxxx!” They are surprisingly adept at negotiating price and engaging in small talk and a wide number of languages.

They will charge higher prices if you are from the UK, US, Germany, or Netherlands. If you can somehow pass yourself off as being from a different country that isn’t very developed, do it. The pyramids were the only time on my trip where I resorted to lying about where I was from. I went from America to Canada, to Slovenia and finally to the fictional country of Karkozia. I’d speak some gibberish sounding Eastern European language and pretend not to know English. If they tell you they are with the government or that it is illegal to walk around the pyramids, they are lying. If you do want to do the camel thing, I recommend doing it early. That way you aren’t just buying a camel ride, you are also paying protection money so the other camel guys don’t harass you. I should make clear that the camel guys are not just outside the entrance, they are walking all over the pyramid grounds as well.

Camels: the source of all trouble at the pyramids
Camels: the source of all trouble at the pyramids

At every tourist attraction in Egypt they have metal detectors. The pyramids was the only place where they even bothered to have them turned on. I had a Leatherman in my camera bag and the guy working the x-ray machine tried to steal it. I put up a fuss and he relented. The lesson here is that even the officials who work there for the government can’t be trusted. While I was walking along the Great Pyramid, there was a small rope barrier. One of the tourist police said it was OK to go over the rope and climb up one flight of the blocks. The moment I got back down he demanded 20LE. Lesson: no one does anything out of the goodness of their heart. They want a tip no matter how inconsequential the advice they give (“stand here to take a picture….5LE please!”)

On top of all that, you have people trying to sell you cheap crap on the pyramid grounds. I didn’t find them nearly as annoying, just because they are stuck in one place because of their inventory. You should just know that all the trinkets they sell are made in China and can be purchased at other shops in Cairo. Despite the fact it is hot and it is in a desert, there was a surprising shortage of people selling beverages. I had one lady (and there are very few women you meet as a tourist in Egypt) who said to me “Sir, would you like to buy a Pepsi-Cola?” I was so shocked at her honest and direct approach of not trying to con me that I bought a drink from her.

My other tip is to bring small bills. If you expect to get change from any of these vendors, they will come up with excuses about not having enough money to make change. I had one guy tell me that he pulled out a 100LE bill and the camel guy just ripped it out of his hand. He almost got into a fight with the guy. Most tourists are not that assertive and end up getting taken advantage of. You have to be very aggressive and if need be come across as a total asshole. Another scam I encountered, but never went along with to figure out how it worked, was the guy who gives you the free t-shirt. They will “give” it to you as a gift and shove it in your hands. I always just let it fall to the ground. I assumed they had partner up the road who would accuse you of stealing or something. If anyone has information on how the scam works, let me know.

In summary, for one of the greatest wonders of the world, the pyramids are a horrible place to visit. I put the blame for the squarely on the shoulders of The Supreme Council of Antiquities which runs the pyramids. I suspect there is some political reason why they let the lunatics run the asylum. They really should be ashamed. They clearly know how to run these properties as I saw in almost every other attraction in Egypt. After a few hours, I was willing to forgo some photos I was hoping to get just because I wanted to leave….which meant getting another taxi.

Most of the independent travelers I met in Egypt had an experience similar to mine. If you do get a chance to visit someday, I hope you can learn something from my visit to make it more enjoyable.

McArabia: McDonald’s in the Arab World

McDonalds in Muscat, Oman

Since I last wrote about McDonald’s when I was in Dubai, I’ve been in Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt and Jordan. As all of the McDonald’s in the Arabian Peninsula are owned by the same company, there isn’t a whole lot to add to what I had to say about McDonald’s in Dubai. I managed to have at least something at a McDonald’s in every country except Qatar. I saw a McDonald’s sign from the window of my taxi, but never found one when I was walking around. Oddly enough, I did manage to eat at a Hardee’s in Qatar, which I thought was really bizarre. It appears that the only place in the world that has Hardee’s outside of the Midwest United States are the Gulf States.

What I want to focus on is McDonald’s Egypt, which was slightly different in substance than what I saw in the Gulf, and very different in the role it served in society. The Gulf states are all rather rich, and even Jordan is not too bad off considering it isn’t an oil producing nation. Egypt is much larger, much more crowded, and much poorer than the other Arab countries I visited. Also, in all of the above countries I listed, I ate maybe one or two meals at McDonald’s, and even then I only did it for the purpose of writing this article (the things I go through for my readers…) In Kuwait, I only got an ice cream cone and just went in to check out the menu.

McArabia Sandwich: Burger + flatbread

In Egypt, I ended up going to McDonald’s more than I have in any other country, and it had nothing to do with food. I would go every day depending what city I was in for one simple reason: McDonald’s had free wifi.

As is usually the case with my McDonald’s articles, I really don’t want to talk about McDonald’s or for that matter Egypt. I want to talk about something bigger. I need to back up as I often do in these articles and address the complaint that I always get. Some people will turn their nose up and say how they would never eat at a McDonald’s when traveling because they want a real cultural experience, and they wouldn’t want to eat garbage food, if you are going to a foreign country they’d want to experience local cuisine. While I understand where they are coming from, their view of fast food restaurants like McDonald’s is a very western view and they are projecting their view of these restaurants on to the places they visit. It might be completely reasonable if you are a westerner visiting, but it isn’t the whole story.

If someone were to make the claim that fast food was the bottom of the barrel of dining in a western country, I don’t think I’d argue with them. Fast food isn’t supposed to be high cuisine. It is supposed to very utilitarian. You get in, you get food, you get out. It is cheap and fast. Much of the fast food experience is totally lost on most westerners, however. The fact that every Big Mac is identical, is by design. Creating a consistent experience means that you know what you are getting, for better or worse, when you go to a chain restaurant.

Qatar has a Hardees. Dont ask me why.

In a world were every restaurant has clean toilets and sanitary kitchen, that might not be a big deal. In many countries I’ve visited, restaurants like McDonald’s are the high end dining option. The average person might never afford to eat at the nice restaurant at the hotel for foreigners, but they might be able to take the kids to McDonald’s once or twice a year for a birthday party and get some free toys in a Happy Meal. (and the birthday parties seem to be a much bigger deal than they are in the US) It isn’t an option for dining that you exercise every day or even every week. The role of the fast food restaurant is sort of turned on its head in a world where you don’t have many restaurants at all.

When the first McDonald’s opened up in the Soviet Union, they had lines around the block. Families would get dressed up and spend a week’s or more income to have a meal that people in the west would turn their noses up at. Part of it was certainly the taboo of eating food from the west, but another part of it was having something of consistent quality, in a clean environment.

When I was in Phnom Penh Cambodia, I visited the KFC. As far as I knew, it was the only western fast food restaurant in the entire country (another KFC was being built in Sieam Reap, but wasn’t open yet). I was struck by something: all the kids who worked there seemed very bright, had nice clothes and spoke English exceptionally well. These were the smart kids and probably children of the Cambodian elite. Asking “do you want fries with that” is actually a pretty good job when there aren’t many other options. Where as most kids in the west would consider working at McDonald’s a crummy job, in Cambodia it was the job for the best and the brightest.

McDonalds in Cairo

Which brings me back to Egypt. While Egypt is not as destitute as Cambodia, it isn’t as rich as Kuwait either. There are plenty of restaurants all over the place where you can eat that are perfectly fine. In fact I came to really like many Egyptian dishes like Foul (or fool depending on the spelling). McDonald’s is neither the best nor the worst option in Egypt. McDonald’s niche in Egypt dining ecosystem seemed to be a hangout for high school kids and young adults. Something which I also saw when I was in Taiwan. It was a place to study and a place you could bring a computer (usually cheap netbooks) to surf with your friends.

Every McDonald’s in Egypt ran McDonald’s radio. It was their own station which was a mix of western and Arab music. Most of the McDonald’s I visited were in tourists areas (because I’m a tourist) and it just added to the “western” vibe you’d get if you were an Egyptian youth.

What is the lesson can we take from this? McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants are a constant like the speed of light. They have a certain consistency which exists no matter where they are. How they fit into a particular country is a function of the development level of the country in question. The richer the country, the lower they are looked upon as a food option. The poorer the country, the more respectable dining option is it. I realize this isn’t quite as simple as sneering at every McDonald’s, but reality is never cut and dry.

The Seven Wonders of Egypt

Great Pyramids at Giza

Great Pyramids and Sphinx
The very fist list of wonders created by Herodotus in the 5th Century BC had the pyramids on the list. In 2,500 years, not much has changed. The Great Pyramids and the Giza Complex are still one of the most impressive sights in the world. The pyramids are from the Upper Kingdom of Egypt and are older than most of the temples you will find in Egypt, which dates after the unification of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms. As such, there is little in the way of hieroglyphs and other Egyptian artwork which can be seen at the site. The pyramids were the tombs of In addition to the pyramids themselves, you can also see the funeral boat of Khufu. The biggest downside to visiting the pyramids are the very aggressive men who try to get you to buy camel rides.

Gardens of St. Catherines Monastery

St. Catherine’s Monastery
Egypt isn’t all temples and ruins which date back to the time of the Pharaohs. There is a great deal of history in Egypt from the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine periods as well. The St. Catherine monastery is located in the middle of the Sinai Peninsula. St. Catherine is believed to be the oldest working Christian monastery in the world, dating its founding to 527 and 565. It was created on orders of the Emperor Justinian at the spot where it is believed Moses saw the burning bush and received the Ten Commandments. The monastery is run by the Greek Orthodox Church and contains about 120 of the oldest Eastern Orthodox icons in the world.

Mohamed Ali Mosque, Cairo.

Islamic Cairo
Despite its location near the pyramids, Cairo was essentially founded as a Muslim city in the 10th Century. Many of the oldest mosques and madrasas in the world can be found in Cairo. The highlight of old Cairo is the Cairo Citadel and the Mohamed Ali Mosque. The mosque is one of the largest of the old Muslim world and the design inside rivals many of the largest cathedrals of Europe. From the Citadel, you can look out to the Giza plateau and see the pyramids on a day where smog is limited. This is the section of town with the souqs (markets) and attractions many of the tourists who visit the city. Old Cairo was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.

Faluccas on the Nile near Aswan.

Nile River
I suppose you could say that the Nile River shouldn’t be considered a Wonder of Egypt because in many respects the Nile IS Egypt. If it wasn’t for the Nile, Egypt wouldn’t exist, neither in its modern or ancient form. Other than the strip of green on either side of the river, most of Egypt is nothing by barren desert. It is the Nile which gave rise to Egyptian culture and made it the breadbasket of the Roman Empire. If you are in Egypt you need to at least take a felucca trip on the river, and if possible take an overnight cruise from Luxor to Aswan. Taking a cruise will not only let you see how average Egyptian farmers work the land, but it will also give you a chance to see some temples you would not get to see in Luxor or Aswan: Edfu and Komombo Temples.

Roman Theater, Alexandria.

Alexandria
Alexandria is a city with an amazing amount of history. It was founded by Alexander the Great. It was where Julius Caesar came ashore in search of Pompey in the Roman Civil War. It was here the great Library of Alexandria was created and later destroyed. It was home to one of the original seven wonders of the world: the Pharos Lighthouse. Anthony and Cleopatra killed themselves here. Despite all this history, almost all of the great structures have been destroyed. There are many smaller structures still to be found in Alexandria, however: Pompey’s Pillar, the Roman Theater, and the Greco-Roman museum. One of the highlights is nine meters below the surface where you can dive and see the ruins of the Pharos Lighthouse. It is also home to the new Biblioteca Alexandria, which hearkens back to the old library.

The head of Ramesses II. Abu Simbel.

Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel consists of two temples created by Ramesses II (aka the Pharoah played by Yul Brenner in the Ten Commandments) to celebrate a victory over the Nubians who lived south of Egypt on the Nile in what is now Sudan. By its own right, Abu Simbel is an impressive place to visit. What makes it really impressive, and the thing that really makes it a Wonder of Egypt is that the entire complex was moved in the 60’s to preserve it from the rising waters of the Aswan High Dam. The entire temple and sculptures carved into the mountain were carved up and moved 60m up and 200m back from the former location of the river. They did such a good job that if it wasn’t for the pile of dirt covering the temples, you’d almost never know that everything had been moved. If you ever visit, pay close attention to the graffiti carved into the stone by British vandals in the 19th Century.

Pillars at Karnak Temple

Karnak and Luxor
Karnak and Luxor are technically separate temples connected by a road known as the Avenue of the Sphinxes, but because they are  close together I’ve decided to list them as a single entry. Luxor and Karnak are both in the middle of urban Luxor City. Luxor Temple is of similar design to other Egyptian temples like Eduf and is best known for its intact obelisk at the front of the temple. Karnak is by far the largest temple in Egypt. It has almost an acre of stone pillars which gives you an idea of just how massive the original temple must have been. You can walk from one temple to the other, but it is probably easier to hire a horse drawn carriage. Don’t worry, the carriage drivers will find you. Collectively these ruins are in the Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Other articles in Gary’s Wonders of the World series:
Seven Wonders of the Philippines | Seven Wonders of Australia | Seven Wonders of New Zealand | Seven Wonders of Japan | Seven Wonders of Egypt | Seven Wonders of Spain

Out of Africa

The last 60 hours have been interesting to say the least. To tell the story will take a bit of time and is a great reminder of how things on the road are totally out of your control.

The plan was to leave Luxor on Friday evening hoping to take a bus to Hurghada on the cost of the Red Sea. From here I was take a ferry for a 90 minute trip to Sharm El Sheik on the southernmost tip of the Sinai Pennisula and go up the coast to Dahab on Saturday. I’d make a day trip to St Catherine’s before heading to Jordan by ferry.

Things didn’t quite go according to schedule.

The bus ride from Luxor to Hurghada went smoothly enough for a six hour bus ride. I arrived in Hurghada at ten past midnight and where I was supposed to have a guy from a hotel where I had reserved a room waiting for me. There was no one there. I waited a full 30 minutes before walking across the street to another hotel and booking a room for the night. My bus was 10 minutes late, which in Egypt is right on time. If you can’t show up when you are supposed to, and I have no idea where your hotel is, then you lose my business.

The next morning I wake up, pack up all my stuff and get ready to make the trip to the ferry station. I was told that the boat leaved at noon, so I got there plenty early. I get to the ticket office only to find out that the ferry wasn’t running. It was in dry dock in Suez for repairs. I was going to have to go by bus.

If you look at a map, I basically had to go up the coast to Suez then back down the other side of the coast on the Sinai peninsula. The attraction of the ferry for a trip like this is pretty obvious. I flagged a cab which took me to the wrong bus station, and then got another cab which took me to the correct bus station. By this time it was 11:30am. The bus to Dahab wasn’t leaving until 11pm but there was a bus going to Suez at 1pm. I could go to Suez and then figure it out from there. I would at least be much closer even if I had to stay there overnight.

The bus was a real piece of shit. I’d like to put it in more gentile terms, but that is what it was. The seat cushions weren’t attached to the seats. There was just bare metal and a cushion on top. Everything was painted black. Every part of the bus was covered with dust and there was a big spare tire in the middle of the bus. The ride itself wasn’t too bad. Egypt around the Red Sea seems much cleaner and more developed the Egypt along the nile. The area around the north Red Sea contains what little oil industry Egypt has.

We pulled into Suez around 5:30pm. Up until then, I hadn’t see much in the way of industry in Egypt. It seemed Suez was a giant industrial park for the rest of the country. In addition to all the shipping going through the canal, there was evidence of factories, milling, and other signs of economic activity lacking in the rest of the country.

There was a bus leaving for Sharm El Sheik at 6:30pm. A German couple who was on my bus from Hurghada asked if I was interested in getting a private car to St. Catherine’s, the world oldest Christian monastery. It would cost more than the bus, but it would eliminate later bus rides from Sharm to Dahab and a day trip to St. Catherine’s. The bus would cost around 40 EGP and the car would cost about 100 EGP, but it would eliminate a night in Sharm, which would probably be expensive, and the future bus ride and day trips. I agreed.

The car we got was a minibus. This did no surprise me as this is how most of the private trips are arranged. As it was a minibus, there were also some other passengers that we were taking to drop off on the say to St. Catherine’s. This bothered the Germans. They expected to be the only passengers and to have a real car, not a van. I didn’t see what the big deal was. We were being taken to where we wanted to go for a price we agreed upon.

We drove under the Suez Canal and crossed from Africa to Asia. Probably the only place on earth you can cross continents underground. It was dark and I couldn’t see the canal or anything else, During the six hours we had to stop at eight police checkpoints and four times I had to produce my passport. I had no clue what they were looking for or what purpose they served, other than to make work for police.

We eventually pull into St. Catherine’s at about midnight, and the Germans inform me that they were not going to pay the driver the price they agreed upon. They (in reality the man in the group) were upset that the Egyptians only paid 50 pounds and we were paying 100. This seemed to him to be some great injustice. Also, he was also upset that he didn’t get to ride in a car. They argued with the driver for 30 minutes while I sat in the van freezing my ass off because it was midnight in March in the desert mountains.

I don’t know how things ended up, but I was embarrassed to have been associated with the German couple. We agreed upon 100 pounds and if he didn’t like the van or the other passengers he didn’t have to go. He knew all that when we started. Also, life isn’t fair. There is nothing in Egypt that tourists are going to pay the same price for as locals. That’s life. I didn’t get worked up over it because I wasn’t concerned so much about what other people were paying so much as what sort of value I was getting out of it. At 100 pounds it was a deal for me, even if someone else got to go for 50. If I hadn’t paid 100, the trip wouldn’t have happened.

The driver was a nice guy and took me to the guesthouse at St. Catherine’s. I was able to get a room for US$25 on the grounds of the monastery. I ended up paying the driver 120 just because I felt bad for what the Germans had done to him. (the poor guy must have felt like Poland). I finally got to go to bed.

I woke up and with all the activity of the night before forgot that I was in the mountains. I opened up the door of my room to see the sun hitting the mountain side right outside my door. It was a beautiful morning. I grabbed my camera and set out to take some photos of St. Catherine’s (a World Heritage Site) before I took the bus to Dahab. I walked around outside the walls of the monastery for a bit only to be denied entrance to the grounds of the monastery itself. In all the commotion I had forgotten it was Sunday. It was closed.

So far for those of you keeping score, we have a broken ferry, cheap ass Germans and a closed monastery. Now I had to decide what to do. I could stay another day and wait for the grounds to open on Monday, or I could just go to Dahab. I picked Dahab. Unfortunately, there was one bit of information I didn’t know. Dahab wasn’t the launching point for the ferry to Jordan. That was further north in Nuweiba. There were also no buses running so I ended up just taking another private car (this time the cost was totally on my shoulders) to go to the ferry terminal. I made the executive decision to cut my Egypt losses short and just go to Jordan today.

I get to Nuweiba and find out that the cost of a ticket for foreigners is US$75, which seemed really expensive. I arrived at 1pm and the boat was leaving at 3pm, so I paid the ticket (there was really no other way to get to Jordan) and set out to wait at the terminal. I met an Australian guy who was on my bus going to Abu Simbel and we chatted up. I also met some Canadians and Americans. Eventually it was time to get on the ferry. All the foreigners loaded on to a bus and went to the boat.

Just then we heard a siren and a convoy of Land Rovers and back Mercedes. Some government official, of which country I don’t know, wanted to take the ferry. The bus stopped and we waited for the official to get on the boat. As it turns out, not only was the loading delayed, the entire trip was canceled because the official wanted to take the whole ferry for himself and his entourage. WHAT. A. DICK.

Several hundred people including tourists from every major country on Earth were stranded so Senior Minister Abdul El Dickhead could travel without having to sit next to other people. That is a microcosm is what is wrong with Egypt. This wasn’t planned before hand. We were literally about to start boarding the ship when this guy showed up.

So back to the holding pen we go.

Eventually at 5:30pm, the boat has returned and we start the boarding process again. There was nothing about this entire process which made sense. We spent 90 minutes on the boat before we left. We (foreigners) had our passports checked 3 times on the boat, each time they looked for the exact same thing. They had a desk to get Jordanian stamps on the boat, which at first made sense, but they just took my passport and told me they would give it back when we arrived in Aqaba.

The passport process in Jordan was a mess. They tended to give preference to processing the tourists and less to processing the Egyptian men on the boat. They took our passports on the boat and then gave us a slip of paper to get our passports back later.

I am now in Aqaba where I am going to stay for two days to take care of some stuff. I have a box of stuff I want to mail out, a ton of emails to answer as well as some things to do on the website. The next week will take me to one of the new seven wonders of the world; Petra. I will also be going to Wadi Rum which is sort of exciting because Lawrence of Arabia is my favorite movie.

Luxor and Celiacs Disease

I’ve arrived in Luxor. Today I was planning on visiting the Luxor and Karnak Temples. Instead I spent the entire day in my room sleeping. I felt horrible this morning. The cough I had gotten in Alexandria came back with a vengeance and to 20 hour days in a row wiped me out. Outside of eating a light lunch, I didn’t leave my room until 7pm. I’m still not 100% but I’m much better than I was in the morning. I’m still really tired and will probably sleep well tonight.

I also think with 95% certainty that I have Celiacs Disease which is probably one of the reasons I feel horrible right now. Despite the dramatic name, Celiacs is just an inability to process the gluten protein in wheat. I’ve been having serious stomach pains for years and I never knew what the cause was. Sometimes the pain would be so sharp in my stomach I couldn’t sleep. Eventually it would pass as the food worked its way though my body. I knew it was dietary but I always thought it was eggs or dairy or something. When I came across the symptoms of Celiacs Disease it fit perfectly.

I hadn’t had stomach pains for months while I was in Asia but they came back with a vengeance when I arrived in Dubai. I hadn’t been eating much wheat in Asia and now I was in a place that had lots of bread. I changed my diet to see if this was the case. I removed all wheat from my diet for several weeks and the symptoms disappeared. I felt great. When I did eat small amounts of bread I’d feel things going on in my digestive track. Last night for the first time in months I had a beer and ate some crumb cake and some chicken with breading. That was enough to set it off.

It really sort of sucks for traveling. It means no flat bread in the Middle East, no pasta in Italy, no bread in France and no fish and chips in the UK (the batter on the fish). It also eliminates most desserts, all sandwiches, beer, many fried foods and even gravy because it has flour in it. It is something I’ll have to do for the rest of my life or deal with the abdominal consequences, which you really don’t want me to go into here. Potatoes and rice are fine as are all vegetables and animal products.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say there wasn’t some benefits to this diet. Removing most fried foods, hamburgers and desserts is probably a good thing. The only things I can really eat in most fast food restaurants now are salads and french fries.

Tomorrow I have to leave the boat and will be moving to a hostel and I hope will get to visit Luxor and Karnak. The day after I’ll go check out the valley of the kings.

Now that I am a disease sufferer, you should cast a pity vote for me in the 2009 Lonely Planet Travel Blog Awards. I am nominated in the Best Travelogue and Best Image Blog category. It only takes a few seconds and there is no registration. Think of it as something like a “make-a-wish” program for a blogger.

Aswan

I seriously wish I had left Cairo sooner and come to Aswan. It is cleaner, not nearly as busy, you aren’t accosted as much, and it is much warmer. I have actually gotten some of my tan back and was able to wear shorts and sandals for the first time in two months.

I’ve been very busy since I arrived. After a 14-hour overnight train ride from Cairo, where I barely slept, within a few hours, I was on a bus going to see the Aswan High Dam and the Philae Temple. The dam wasn’t as impressive as I thought it would be. It is a big dam and its significance being on the Nile makes it really important, but it wasn’t much to look at. Soviet construction seldom is.

Philae Temple was very impressive, however. It was moved piece by piece in 1977-80 by UNESCO after having been flooded by the original Aswan Low Dam in 1902. Unlike the pyramids, Philae had all the trapping of what you expect from Egypt. Hieroglyphs and carvings of Pharaohs. The temple didn’t just show signs of ancient Egyptians. All of the images of humans had by carved over by Coptic Christians in the 4th century. You can still see crosses in the stone and an altar inside the temple. When Napoleon invaded, he had academics go to Philae and carve a large inscription into the wall in French. There are also tons of 19th Century British graffiti carved in everything.

Yesterday I wasn’t planning on doing anything because I was still tired from the train ride and had to wake up extremely early the next day to go to Abu Simbel. I ended up with an offer for a free felucca trip on the Nile, so I grabbed my camera and went. There was no wind, so we took forever to cross the river. I took the opportunity to take the zip-off legs off my pants and get some sun. I got the explore the very crowded botanical garden for about 30 min before we switched boats and went to Elephantine Island. Unfortunately, it took so long to cross the river, by the time we got there it was closed. Oh well, you get what you pay for.

This morning I woke up at 2:45 am to go to Abu Simbel. It is 275km from Aswan and you have to leave with every other bus in the city in a big caravan. This is done to reduce the risk of kidnappings in the largely desolate stretch between Aswan and Abu Simbel. Arriving there in the morning was like being at the Disneyland when the gates opened. There were hundreds of people there. Like Philae, Abu Simbel was moved from its previous location because it would have been flooded by the waters of Lake Nassar.

Between everything, I saw I probably took close to 400 photos. It is going to take a while to get through everything.

Tomorrow I’m taking a cruise aboard a ship from Aswan to Luxor, with stops at several temples along the way. From everything everyone has told me, the temples at Luxor are really the best in Egypt. I will need to set aside some time after Luxor to go through my photos. I’ll have a lot and I don’t want to get too far behind. Because of the quality of the internet connection in Aswan, I did manage to upload all my photos from the Gulf, so I got that going for me.

Diving the Lighthouse of Alexandria

Artist rendition of the Lighthouse of Alexandria (from Wikipedia)
Artist rendition of the Lighthouse of Alexandria (from Wikipedia)

Today was a pretty good day. I went diving in the ruins of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was the most unique dive I’ve ever done on many different levels: it was the coldest dive I’ve ever done at 15C (59F), the shallowest dive I’ve ever done at only 8m, it was the worst visibility I’ve ever had on a dive, and the only archeological dive I’ve ever done.

The Lighthouse of Alexandria was the architectural landmark of Alexandria during the Ptolemaic dynasty and during Roman rule. Also known as the Pharos, it got its name from the small island it was situated on in the Alexandria harbor. It was estimated to be between 115 and 150 m (380 and 490 ft) tall, which would put it on a par with the Great Pyramid. The lighthouse was destroyed in the early 14th century from earthquakes, and in the 15th century, Sultan Qaitbey built a fort on the site. The fort is still there today.

Surprisingly, no one knew that parts of the lighthouse were in the sea until a team of divers discovered in in 1994. I say surprisingly only because the water is shallow enough where someone could free dive from the surface and see the large stones. In 700 years, no one bothered to look.

There was only myself and a Canadian guy who did the dive today. This isn’t really the high season for tourists and given the water temperature, not a great time for divers. I had to wear a full 5mil wetsuit with a hood and boots. All of the previous dives I’ve done have been in tropical climates where at best you only needed a light, half wetsuit. The only part of my body which was exposed were my hands the area around my mouth and eyes not covered by my goggles.

The dive was run by Alexandria Divers, the only dive shop in town.

The first dive was outside the harbor wall. Visibility wasn’t too bad at about 10-12m. Everywhere you went were large rectangular blocks, pillars, stone chairs, and sphinxes. Before most dives, you have a short meeting with the divemaster to go over hand signals. They had special ones to identify is something was Roman, Greek or Egyptian or if it was a pillar or part of the lighthouse. From the maps of the area I’ve seen, there is a lot more there that we didn’t see. While air supply isn’t an issue at that depth, the temperature still was and we had a good hour in the water.

The second dive was inside the harbor and the main attraction was an Italian fighter which crashed during WWII. There were also jars, vases and lamps strewn about the seafloor. Visibility here was horrible. It was maybe 2m at best and it was very easy to get lost and lose sight of the people you were diving with. I was sort of surprised at the number of artifacts I was able to see. I figured most of them would have been hauled up and put in a museum by now.

If you are a diver and are going to Egypt, the Alexandria dive is something you should consider. There aren’t many non-wreck, archeological dives in the world you can do. The price is sort of steep at 100 Euros for 2 dives, but it isn’t outrageous. If you go in the summer, I think it would be a much more enjoyable experience. Water temperature in the summer can reach 25C (77F) which is a much nicer environment for diving than 15C. Most divers in Egypt go to the Red Sea. Alexandria isn’t too far to go if you want to do something different.